Salisbury at Stevenson: Three things to watch

Reigning national champion Salisbury has won 10 of 15 meetings in this series and is 2-0 against Stevenson in the NCAA tournament semifinals. But the Mustangs took the last contest, 10-8, at Sea Gull Stadium on April 3.

The Sea Gulls (17-5) – ranked 12th in the most recent United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association poll – are making their 10th Final Four appearance in the last 11 years and have advanced to the title game every time. Junior attackman Rhett DePol has recorded 19 goals and a team-high 34 assists after managing nine goals and eight assists last season.

No. 4 Stevenson (20-2) extended its winning streak to 10 and is enjoying the program’s first 20-win campaign. With 56 goals this spring, sophomore attackman Mark Pannenton ranks fifth on the team’s single-season list in that department.

Here are a few factors that could play a role in the outcome at Mustang Stadium in Owings Mills on Sunday night.

1) Transition. Against No. 2 Dickinson Wednesday, Salisbury surrendered four transition goals before tightening the transition defense and escaping with an 11-9 decision. The Mustangs scored their first goal in that April 3 game via an unsettled opportunity and got their second tally off of a faceoff win. Sea Gulls coach Jim Berkman said stifling Stevenson’s transition opportunities will be crucial. “We don’t want them to get into a running game or score in an advantageous situation,” he said. “They’re a good team, they thrive on chaos, they take a lot of chances on defense to create chaos. They’ve got a lot of guys with sticks over their heads. If they can get the ball on the ground, that leads to an advantageous situation for them. By the same token, if you protect the ball and take care of it, it also exposes them a great deal. … So we’ve got to do a good job against the pressure, we’ve got to negate it a little bit, and we’ve got to get in the hole and make them play six-on-six.”

2) Ground balls. Both sides entered the week among the national leaders in ground balls with the Mustangs ranking first in Division III with 48.2 per game and Salisbury ranking 23rd with 41.4. Stevenson won that battle, 32-26, in the regular season, and coach Paul Cantabene said maintaining that edge could be pivotal again. “I think it’s going to come down to ground balls,” he said. “Who is going to get the second chances? Who is going to be the tougher team? What team is going to sacrifice and dodge hard and score and get knocked down and get up and do it again? Who is going to win that ground ball battle? We’ve done a good job with that all year, and hopefully, we can continue to do that.”

3) Goalkeepers. Both teams are blessed with prolific offenses and even better defenses, but it is the goalies – Salisbury junior Alex Taylor and Stevenson freshman Dimitri Pecunes – who may loom large in the final score. “The goalies are going to have to play well,” Cantabene said. “For them, Alex Taylor is going to have to have a big game, and we need Dimitri to have a big game. They could be the difference in terms of which goalie plays better.” One element that could play a role is experience as Taylor made 19 saves in the Sea Gulls’ 7-2 victory over Mustangs in last year’s national semifinal. “He’s been doing it for a couple years, he’s been in big games before,” Berkman said. “If it’s a one- or two-goal game, you know who’s going to make the difference. It’s not going to be somebody having a field day on offense. It’s going to be the guy in the cage who is going to be the difference.”

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